A dark stain in the history of Warsaw University was the decision to follow a nationalist trend in the 1930s and mandate segregated seating for the university’s Jewish students. Over 80 years later, a student-initiated campaign resulted in a permanent, public acknowledgement of this institutionalized discrimination. On May 22, University Rector Alojzy Nowak and Israeli Ambassador Yacov Livne dedicated a commemorative plaque before a crowd of about 200. Dignitaries, scholars of Jewish history and culture, and prominent members of Warsaw’s Jewish community gathered behind a red retractable belt barrier under the watchful eye of an Israeli guard, while a younger crowd of students and onlookers looked on from the other side.
I learned about the event serendipitously, when fellow ADJCP board member Ken Drabinsky invited me to accompany him to the Warsaw University Department of History to donate a copy of the self-published autobiography of Henry Balaban, nephew of renowned historian Meir Bałaban. I accompanied Ken as he presented the book to Łukasz Niesiołowski and Marzena Zawanowska at the Department of History.
The commemorative ceremony began with songs in Yiddish performed by students from the Multicultural High School of Humanities named after Solidarity hero Jacek Kuroń, followed by predictable remarks by the rector and the Israeli ambassador about the need for unity across cultural and religious differences and the importance of remembering the dark as well as light moments in history. Both celebrated the university students who initiated the project.
The audience’s enthusiastic applause was reserved for the third speaker, Antonina Dukowicz from the Student Antifascist Committee. It didn’t come in response to her diplomatic discussion of the five years it took to persuade the administration and work out the appropriate language for the marker. Rather, the crowd responded to her expression of support for the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Science, which is under attack by the government because of the work scholars are doing there that highlights some of the less noble behavior of Polish people against Jews during the Nazi occupation. The specific trigger for the latest attack was a brief comment by Holocaust Scholar Barbara Engelking that “Jews were unbelievably disappointed with Poles during the war.” The remark caused such a strong reaction because it challenges the official narrative that Poles helped the Jews more than any other nation and that they couldn’t do more because they were under occupation and subject to persecution themselves.
The student speaker called the commemorative marker a symbol that sheds light on the current darkness in Poland, and urged viewers to let it be a model for remembering the difficult truth. She ended with a call to cut out all kinds of antisemitism and oppression, so that it is never repeated. The final applause erupted, falling into rhythm as it continued.
Some commentators criticized the university for failing to issue an apology, or for not making a bolder statement. I’m impressed by the way Antonina Dukowicz connected historical discrimination with contemporary political battles, and the way those in attendance affirmed those connections. Battles are being fought here to acknowledge the less noble moments in Polish Jewish history and to reaffirm values of unity and diversity.
When Poles say “jestem stąd” (“I’m from here”) it usually means more than just living in a particular place. It signals long-term residence that goes back for generations. I mentioned this to Roberta in September when we were planning the ADJCP memorial tour, and she immediately adopted it as the perfect motto for our trip. For most of the 35 descendants here in central Poland, this is a kind of homecoming. Even though most of us have never been here before, generations of our ancestors built homes in Brześć Kujawski, Chodecz, Gąbin, Gostynin, Izbica Kujawska, Koło, Kowal, Kłodawa, Krośniewice, Kutno, Lubień Kujawski, Lubraniec, Przedecz, Włocławek, and Żychlin.
Our trip has drawn the attention of the regional press, too.
Report #16 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland.
Chodecz, September 15
We met Irena Grabowska and Joanna Modrzejewska of the Brotherhood of Lovers of the Chodecz Region (BMZCh, Bractwo Miłośników Ziemi Chodeckiej) in a restaurant called Stara Gospoda located at Plac Kościuszki in the center of town. We ate large squares of homemade chocolate cake with tiny spoons while Irena and Joanna told us about their organization, which was founded in 2009. Irena is the vice president. The president, her husband Grzegorz, had another commitment that afternoon.
Over the years, the BMZCh has organized a variety of activities as part of their effort to inform residents about the fate of the Jewish community during World War II, including trips to the death camp at Chełmno nad Nerem where most Jews from this region perished.
They told us the prewar Jewish population of Chodecz was comprised of craftspeople and traders mostly, though there was one doctor. The BMZCh has done research on Jewish survivors, including Roman Halter, a sculptor and artist who was born in Chodecz in 1927. He wrote a memoir called Roman’s Journey. Other Jewish survivors include Sala Lubieńska, whom they have interviewed. Her two daughters visit sometimes. In addition, three sisters named Nadja, Henia, and Sala Pinczewska all went to Australia. The son of one of the sisters, Jeff Katz, has visited from Australia.
Their most tangible efforts have involved the preservation of the Jewish cemetery. We drove a short distance to see it. In 2011, the BMZCh mounted a sign outlining the history of the cemetery and the Jewish community, written in English on one side and in Polish on the other. The English side remains in good shape, but the Polish side is cracked and faded from time, sunshine, and weather.
In 2012, they added a commemorative boulder up the slope near the center of the cemetery.
They placed a row of large stones to prevent cars from driving on the cemetery grounds, and they have also planted small trees along the edge of the cemetery nearest the dirt road, careful to avoid the actual cemetery terrain. A very recent project involved painting the border stones along the path to the commemorative boulder. Irena was not sure that painting the stones bright white was the best idea, but it demonstrates continued efforts to care for the Jewish cemetery.
The next project the organization hopes to realize is a commemorative wall that will incorporate the few tombstone fragments they have recovered. They have drawn up architectural plans and received the necessary approvals from government agencies, but they haven’t been successful in obtaining funding for the project.
Organization president Grzegorz Grabowski sent links to reports on BMZCh activities:
Report #11 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland.
Gostynin, September 13
Our partner for Gostynin and the nearby town of Gombin (written Gąbin in Polish) is Piotr Syska, a high school geography teacher. We met at Wasiak’s Bakery on Gostynin’s main square. Despite intermittent showers, we sat under a tree in the café’s courtyard. Piotr showed us some materials from previous projects he’s worked on as well as the memoir of a Gostynin Jew, Living in the Shadow of Tyranny: How I Deceived the Nazis to Survive the War – The Isaac Kraicer Story, written by Stephan Helgesen on the basis of Kraicer’s recollections. Piotr said that he dreams of translating the Gostynin Yizkor Book into Polish, and also to translate the Kraicer story into Polish.
Piotr showed us a surviving kuczka, a narrow wooden balcony that was used by Jewish residents to build their sukkah. We peeked over the garden fence to look at the structure on the neighboring building.
Piotr got involved in Jewish memory projects just a few years ago, in 2016, as he was pursuing his master’s degree. Soft spoken, but clearly devoted and effective, he has accomplished a lot in a short period of time. His wife Elwira teaches English through private lessons. She usually translates for him when he meets foreign visitors, but she had students on this particular day.
Piotr helped Leon Zamosc with the Gostynin and Gombin memorial trip he led in 2019. The trip included a March of Remembrance commemorating the liquidation of the town’s ghetto. It was also documented in a film.
Gostynin is larger than Gombin, with nearly 20,000 residents in contrast to Gombin’s 2500 residents. Piotr noted that Gostynin had been 35% Jewish and Gombin, 75% Jewish before the war. Piotr has mostly done Jewish heritage work in Gostynin, although last year, Gombin placed a marker at the former site of the synagogue.
Despite some challenges, Piotr has completed some exemplary projects. The first is a multicultural historical trail with key locations marked with informational sign boards. He got pushback on the idea of an exclusively Jewish history trail but found support for a multicultural trail recognizing the Jewish, German, and Russian influences in Gostynin, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Notably, many of the signs include texts in German, Russian, English, and Hebrew in addition to the more detailed Polish texts. The first sign on the trail explains:
The project named “Multicultural Gostynin” arose to preserve the memory of the past. We invite you to take a journey on the miniature tourist trail so you can get to know the interesting history of our town and the fate of its residents.
The banner at the top of the sign includes photographs of four houses of worship: the Catholic church, synagogue, Evangelical (Protestant) church, and the Russian Orthodox church. A map shows the location of the ten stops along the trail, three of which focus on the town’s Jewish history: at the town square, the site of the World War II ghetto, and the Jewish cemetery.
The tenth stop takes visitors to Gostynin’s Jewish cemetery, a short drive from the center of town. In addition to historical information in Polish, English and Hebrew, this sign includes information about Jewish cemeteries, written only in Polish: “In keeping with Jewish law, the human body is holy even after death and will stay that way until the Final Judgement. The land in which the dead are laid to rest belongs to them forever.” It goes on to explain proper behavior within a cemetery: men should cover their heads; people should remember the dead by placing small stones on their grave markers. Restricted activities include: any kind of work during the Sabbath; disturbing graves or any kind of digging within the cemetery; eating and drinking in the cemetery; and treating the road through the cemetery as a shortcut. “This is a place for the dead and they deserve respect,” it concludes.
The cemetery grounds are mowed but unfenced. They contain another project Piotr helped realize: a commemorative monument composed of matzevah fragments piled within iron mesh. Both projects were officially opened on September 20, 2018 with Israeli ambassador Anna Azari, mayor Paweł Kalinowski, and descendants of a holocaust survivor (Jacob and Tomer Naveh) in attendance.
A well-traveled dirt road goes along one edge of the cemetery and provides access to several houses outside the cemetery boundary.
Piotr said they tried to close that road, but they met with too much local opposition. He communicated his frustration about this with a look and a shrug. Perhaps what he left unsaid is that sometimes you have to settle for what is possible to achieve. Maintaining the goodwill of the local community requires difficult compromises. The final admonition on the sign for the Multicultural Gostynin trail, to respect the dead and refrain from driving over cemetery grounds, serves only as an unenforced request. Hopefully, it will move residents to reconsider their actions.
Report #9 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland.
Koło, September 11
Roberta, Yosef, and I met Koło museum employee Tomasz Nuszkiewicz at the Town Hall, and we walked across the street to the city’s museum of ceramics. Like Włocławek, Koło had factories specializing in faience, tin-glaze ware with painted designs, usually floral motifs. These factories were started by Jewish industrialists, who owned them until they were taken over by the German occupiers during World War II; after the war, they were nationalized by the Polish government.
We sat in an upstairs room at a table, where Tomasz had set out a copy of the Koło Yizkor Book for us, along with copies of a book of town postcards which he gave to each of us. The museum publishes a historical periodical that occasionally has articles about the town’s Jewish community. The room also has a Torah on display; it was found after the war and probably came from a neighboring town. Roberta suggested that based on its modest size, it might have belonged to someone wealthy enough to have a Torah at home.
We walked back past the Town Hall, which has a plaque mounted on its back wall inscribed in Hebrew, Polish, and Yiddish:
In the years 1939-1943 German occupiers murdered about 5000 Jews, citizens of the city of Koło. Honor their memory! The community and city council of Koło, September 1, 2009.
We continued another block to the former site of the synagogue, an overgrown lot with a pile of organic debris under some trees. The site is owned by the Jewish Community in Wrocław, but they don’t maintain it. Tomasz said maybe the city should clean it up, but they rarely do because it is not their property.
These issues of ownership are fundamental and challenging. How do you maintain property when the owners are absent? Who has the rights? Who has the responsibility? What is legally mandated and what is morally correct?
A commemorative monument sits behind a fence in a square filled with trees, walkways, and grass across the street from the synagogue site. A plaque on a tall boulder reads (in Hebrew, Polish, and Yiddish):
Next to this place stood two synagogues built in 1860. The Nazis destroyed the larger synagogue and turned the smaller one into a resettlement point.
Inscribed in metal along the base, it reads:
In the years 1939-1943, Nazis resettled about 7500 Jews from Koło and the surrounding area to camps of torment and murder. Honor their eternal memory.
The buildings all around the square used to be owned and occupied by the Jewish population. Without clear ownership after the war, the city took over their management and rented them to people in need of social assistance. The same thing happened to Jewish property in Włocławek and other cities throughout Poland.
We continued by car to the Jewish cemetery, which is on the other side of the river on a hilltop behind the community center. A fence surrounds the cemetery, which can be accessed through an unlocked gate. The front section is covered with with trees and grass, and the cemetery extends across a grassy field. The city maintains this site because they own it. They keep the grass cut. Under the trees, a brick wall adorned with a Star of David pattern serves as a monument, with a plaque saying “The cemetery was destroyed by Nazis 1940-1943 and the Koło municipality 1945-1968; Koło June 24, 1993.”
Three matzevot, the only ones that have been recovered, lie on the ground in front of the wall.
As we left, Yosef commented that of all the towns we have visited so far, Koło has probably done the most to protect their Jewish cemetery. It has a fence all around it, a commemorative memorial, and benefits from regular maintenance.
Report #8 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland.
Chełmno nad Nerem, September 11
On September 11, we started the day at the Chełmno Death Camp. Though the parking lot was full, the camp itself was empty. Most people were in the neighboring church. It was Sunday. The mass, emitted from speakers outside the church, wafted across the remains of the death camp.
No English-language guide was available, so the woman at the office/ticket desk showed us around herself.
The camp is on the site of a former pałac, or mansion. Prisoners would be told it was a health resort. They were given postcards and encouraged to write home that they were safe and taken care of. Then, they were told they needed to wash before entering, which made sense to many because diseases like typhus were common in the ghettos they came from. Prisoners were brought to the basement of the mansion to undress. They were instructed to fill out inventories of the valuables they had with them and then hand everything over for safe keeping while they showered. They were told they can present their inventory later to get their valuables back. Instead, they were murdered.
The Nazis destroyed the camp when they retreated. But the outline of the mansion’s basement walls remain. We walked along a raised walkway and looked down into the spaces where people undressed and then were led down a corridor and outside into a truck set up with what looked like shower heads inside. Sometimes, prisoners were even given slivers of soap as they entered. In actuality, these trucks were designed for mass murder, their backs converted into the Nazis’ first gas chambers. Up to 100 people were gassed at a time and then prison work units would remove the bodies, which were taken by truck to the forest about 7 km away. Initially the bodies were buried, but later they were burned and the ashes buried.
They knew that what they were doing was wrong. Why else would they destroy the evidence?
At the burial site in the forest, I needed space to be with my own thoughts. I walked alone under an imposing Communist-era concrete monument balanced on tapered concrete supports. On the side facing the road is a bas relief of people in various states of suffering, with the single word “We remember” (“Pamiętamy”). On the back side, in uneven block letters, is written, “We were taken, from the elderly to infants, between the cities of Koło and Dąbie. We were taken to the forest and there we were gassed, shot, and burned…Now we ask that our future brothers punish our murderers. The witnesses of our oppression, who live in this area we ask again for these murders to be publicized throughout the world.”
At some point, the Communist leaders made a point of building commemorative monstrosities like this. There is another one at the Stutthoff Concentration Camp near the Baltic coast.
I caught up with Roberta and Yosef when we got to a big field of mass graves. “This is the most important place to see,” Roberta said. Otherwise, we didn’t talk about it.
The graves are delineated by concrete borders filled with white gravel. This is to mark the burial sites, and also to prevent bone fragments from moving up out of the ground. People have been known to search for bones here and take them home as souvenirs.
Survivors and their descendants have put up monuments alongside the massive expanses of burials. Some commemorate Jewish communities of particular towns, and some include long lists of the names of those murdered. Near the remains of a crematorium, now mounted in a low concrete wall, is a higher wall with an arched opening. On both sides, smaller plaques were put up by families to commemorate their murdered relatives.
Several years ago, a friend told me that people would come here for picnics. As we left, Roberta said there used to be rock concerts near the Communist-era monument, too. What were they thinking? Or, rather, how is it that they weren’t thinking about this as a place of martyrdom and tragedy?
Over lunch in Koło, we didn’t talk about any of this. Maybe we just needed a break. Or maybe it was the result of a kind of protective amnesia. If you think about it too much it will just drive you crazy.
Report #4 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland. Reports include contributions by Roberta.
Krośniewice Mayor Katarzyna Erdman, Sławomir Mikołajczyk, and his son Adam Mikołajczyk stood on the side of the main road from Kutno, sheltered from the rain under two umbrellas. Sławomir, a member of the Krośniewice branch of the Friends of Kutno (TPŻK), works at the city museum, while Adam a City Hall employee, shares his father’s passion for local history. They waited for Roberta, Yosef, and me in the rain so they could start our tour of Jewish sites at a memorial stone engraved with the statement:
People today should bring back the memory of those who are no more
At the 70th Anniversary of the liquidation of the ghetto III X 1942
The Krośniewice Community
2012 (my translation from Polish)
They pointed out that the building next to us was the synagogue. For years it served as a movie theatre, but when it was sold in 2004, the new owner converted it into a funeral home. The walls of the synagogue are hidden behind the utilitarian exterior of the current plaster façade.
During our meeting all participants affirmed their willingness to help organize a half-day event for descendants in May. Our hosts told us about Sol Rosenkranz, a Holocaust survivor who returned to his hometown and built a fence and monument at the Jewish cemetery. They told us that Sol’s son still returns regularly to maintain the cemetery. The mayor had the impression that the town does not have permission to cut the grass themselves. She also said they know about tombstones under roads, including 20 or more in a nearby town. The Jewish cemetery has a few tombstones incorporated into a makeshift monument, and she hopes more can be recovered.
Roberta asked Mayor Erdman what she considers Krośniewice’s biggest challenges. Erdman replied employment and investment. As with so many small towns in Poland (and throughout the world, really) young people are leaving in search of work and a better life. Her greatest task as mayor is finding investors who will build businesses and create jobs. Later, I asked Adam what motivated him to return to Krośniewice. He responded, “Someone needs to stay.” Also, he feels such a strong attachment to the place and its history he decided to try and make a life for himself there.
Sławomir and Adam told us about other Holocaust survivors. 92-year-old Róża Aleksander (now Krysia Nowak) still lives in town. As a young child, she and her mother Saba were hidden by Józefa Dziewierska, a righteous gentile acknowledged for her actions in 1997. Saba’s maiden name was Flaster; her husband’s name was Gabriel Alexander. Their daughter Róża was born in 1931 to Gabriel Aleksander and Saba Flaster Aleksander. During the war, mother and daughter adopted false identities Zofia and Krysia Marczak. Róża, now Krysia Nowak (her married name), used to meet with descendants but is no longer well enough to do so. Her testimony was recorded by the Shoah Foundation.
Another child survivor, (Hanna Kałużna?) lives in Wrocław. She and Krysia remain friends. Hanna used to visit Krysia in Krośniewice, but now that she is in her late 80s she hasn’t been able to.
We concluded our visit at the cemetery, which is 900 meters from the center of town. Cars whizzed by on the city bypass running up the slope from the cemetery. A paved drive leads to a metal gate, and a plaque on the right contains a brief history of the city’s Jews in Polish, English, and Hebrew. The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage (FODŻ) installed it in 2014.
Only Adam and Yosef ventured through the long grass inside, to the pile of debris that someone topped with matzevah fragments and cynically labelled a monument.
In the 1980’s, an unscrupulous businessman decided the abandoned cemetery would be an ideal place to dump construction debris. His illegal use was reported to the authorities, and he was told to remove the debris. Instead, to avoid the expense of clean-up and a fine, he mounted tombstone fragments atop the rubble and claimed that since it is now a monument none of it can be disturbed.
Adam made photos with my phone, so I can share them here.
An important update to this report
ADJCP president Leon Zamosc shared what he knows about Sol Rosenkranz and Sol’s efforts to restore the cemetery.
“The initiative to restore the cemetery came from Sol Rosenkranz, a survivor from Krosniewice. He had been born in Grabow, but the family moved to Krosniewice when he was a child. “During the war, Sol Rosenkranz was in six labor camps until his liberation in Theresienstadt. He and one of his brothers were the only survivors of his family. He came to the US in 1946, lived in New York and Los Angeles (where he worked as a volunteer speaker in the Simon Wiesenthal Center), and spent his final years back in New York (where he was an active gallery educator at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park). He passed away in 2019 at the age of 101. “After his liberation in 1945, Sol returned to Krosniewice and saw that the Germans had paved the town square with gravestones removed from the Jewish cemetery (all deliberately placed with the inscriptions up). That memory stayed with him for decades. In 2002, Sol visited Krosniewice and found that the communist administration had re-surfaced the town square in the early 1950s. The matzevot had been removed but there was no record of their whereabouts. “In 2013, Sol went to Krosniewice again. At the dilapidated cemetery site, there were only half a dozen fragments of matzevot that someone had cemented together. Sol was not a wealthy man, but during that visit he decided that he would fund the restoration of the cemetery (placement of a fence around the perimeter of the cemetery and installation of an iron-wrought gate with a memorial plaque). The works were carried out by FODZ (the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland) and the dedication took place in 2014.”
Leon also reached out to Sol’s son Joel who tells a slightly different story about the ongoing maintenance of the cemetery.
“When we dedicated the cemetery in 2014 we were hopeful that city officials including the then mayor Juliana Herman, the clergy and teachers would advocate support and maintenance – however that did not materialize.”
Joel also reached out to me with more details:
At the Wiesenthal Center, Sol worked in the library translating Yiddish and Hebrew letters and other documents for families, asking only that they make a donation to the Center in return. He started talking about the Shoah after Joel’s mother Sally died in 1996. He returned to New York and began to volunteer for the Museum of Jewish Heritage even before it had a physical space. He “embraced his role as a witness, speaking to students at schools of all denominations. After the MJH was established, he was a member of the Speakers Bureau for more than 20 years and by their estimate had told his story to more than 10,000 people, one class or group at a time.”
He further explains “Regarding Krosniewice cemetery maintenance, because Nature remained unchecked in that spot for decades, trees and shrubs developed deep roots. According to Rabbinic law as Rabbi Schudrich stated, in clearing the cemetery grounds, it was not permitted to use any heavy equipment that would disturb bodies below the surface. As a result, the tools we used were chainsaws to cut trunks as close to the ground as possible, clippers and weed whackers. Within a year, certainly two, nature asserted herself again and so a program of perpetual care is what is required. Local authorities don’t have any ownership authority, but they could certainly play a helpful, respectful role in maintenance if they wanted.”
This just goes to show how hard it can be to maintain cemeteries and other memorial sites. Even when all sides approach a project with good will, plenty of room remains for misunderstanding. It is also a real challenge for information to be passed down from one government administration to the next, and from one activist to another.
Report #3 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland. Reports include contributions by Roberta.
Our visit to Żychlin began with a meeting at Town Hall with 8th graders and their teachers from the local school. The children were shy—reluctant to speak in English or in Polish with us—but clearly we had their full attention as we shared our family connection to central Poland and explained why we were visiting. We used a question and answer format to gauge their knowledge about Jewish culture, history, and religion, and to share some basic knowledge with them.
Because I heard Żychlin Mayor Grzegorz Ambroziak speak at the unveiling of the new monument commemorating Żychlin’s Jewish community, I had the sense he wants to preserve the memory of the town’s Jews. At our meeting, he confirmed this. He led the conversation with his concerns about the fate of the synagogue ruins, which are situated in an impoverished area just off the central town square. After the war, the city used the building as a warehouse, and they maintained it until the Jewish Community of Warsaw reclaimed the property. For years it stood empty as the city negotiated with the Jewish Community to obtain legal possession of the building. They envisioned turning it into a museum of regional history. The city was granted possession of the synagogue in 2007-8, exactly when the roof caved in. Since then, the decay of the building has accelerated due to the lack of a roof. Currently, wooden supports hold up the shorter walls of the building, but it looks like it could fall down at any moment. The city would like to use the space for a museum.
Mayor Ambroziak invited the ADJCP to cosign a Letter of Intent attesting to our interest in rebuilding the synagogue. With this affirmation that interest in the synagogue extends beyond the immediate needs of Żychlin residents, he is confident the city can obtain funds from the Ministry of Culture and the EU for the renovation. All such funding requires cost-sharing by the municipality, and he is prepared to provide those matching funds from the city budget.
We also gained the mayor’s support for 3 other ADJCP projects in Żychlin: the plaque for righteous gentile Szułdrzyński, cemetery restoration, and help organizing our memorial trip.
The ADJCP will provide a plaque commemorating a righteous gentile from Zychlin named Stanisław Szułdrzynski; Bożena Gajewska will arrange its manufacture for us. The mayor agreed to find an appropriate place for the plaque, and to arrange for it to be officially unveiled during our memorial visit in May 2023.
The mayor welcomes our efforts to clean up and restore the Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery is managed by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage (FODŻ). The city does not take responsibility for regular maintenance. When they do cut the vegetation (as they did for the recent Forum for Dialogue project “In the Footsteps of Żychlin’s Jews”) they have to cut back thorny bushes (trzcina, black thorn). They said they are not allowed to dig the roots out or use pesticides, which means within a few months the bushes grow right back. Roberta has contacted Rabbi Schudrich for clarification of what maintenance practices are allowed and to confirm who owns the cemetery.
The Mayor will be pleased to greet ADJCP in May 2023. Anna Wrzesińska will walk around with them.
After the meeting, we stepped across the street to see the monument to Żychlin’s Jews, unveiled in June as part of the project “In the Footsteps of Zychlin Jews.” Bożena Gajewska of the Friends of the Kutno Region (TPŻK) ran the program with the help of Anna Wrzesińska and funding from the Forum for Dialogue. Mayor Ambroziak also contributed funds for the plaque; because of the length of the inscription, it exceeded the approved budget.
Anna Wrzesińksa took us to the office of the Association of Żychlin History Enthusiasts (Towarzyszenie Miłośników Histori Żychlinskiej, TMHŻ) where we met with members of the organization and learned about their recent projects. They showed us the display boards from an exhibition they put together about Żychlin’s Jewish Community. It was on display this spring during the Forum for Dialogue project “In the Footsteps of Żychlin’s Jews.” They also showed us the numerous publications they have released, including a photocopy of their latest work, still awaiting publication, about Żychlin’s Jewish history.
Jerzy Werwiński, 92-year-old member (born in 1931) shared his recollections of wartime, starting with the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in 1942. He was just a boy; he hid in an attic across the street and watched from a window as the Jewish residents were rounded up and placed in horse-drawn farmer’s wagons and carted 2 km to the train station. From there, they were transported by train to the Chełmno Death Camp. Once Jerzy started talking he couldn’t stop. Visibly shaken, he described his own wartime experiences. Essentially, he spent the next three years in work camps and prison, until he was liberated by the advancing Soviet Army in January 1944. He recounted living in barracks, sleeping on hard wooden planks with no blankets even in the coldest winter nights. They had very little to eat; each morning a loaf of bread would be cut in six pieces for six people for the whole day. He was told he can eat it all at once but then go hungry the rest of the day or he could nibble on it throughout the day. At night, they got a cup of soup that was mostly water with just a few chunks of potato or other vegetables. The other TMHŻ members were born after the war, but their parents told them stories of deprivation and forced labor. Clearly, they have more to say about the hardships experienced during the war; I asked if I can return so they can tell me more and I can record their stories.
We finished our visit with a walk to the synagogue ruins. The remaining walls are in bad shape and look like they could collapse at any moment. This is a shame because even a few years ago when I first visited, the walls were reasonably sturdy. Some of the interior wall paintings could still be seen through the empty windows; these all appear to have been erased by the weather. The first step of any project will need to be to assess the condition of the remaining structure.
The cemetery is the largest one in our area, covering 3 hectares. Yosef’s mission was to inspect the boundaries to see the condition of the fence. We found some fragments of the prewar brick fence. There are several access points to the cemetery, making it a place where Kutno residents cut through on their way to school or home, or where they walk their dogs or children play. Despite signs posted by the TPŻK explaining this is a cemetery and should be respected, piles of trash in remote corners of the cemetery suggest it is used as a place to drink and socialize. We located a sunken area where a tree grows, the likely sight of the Ohel of Rabbi Israel Joshua Trunk (1821-93), and larger sunken area hidden by overgrowth that might be the site of a wartime mass grave.
Next, we met the Kutno Regional Museum Director Grzegorz Skrzynecki and others at a defunct brewery warehouse where the museum stores hundreds of matzevot fragments recovered from the places they were used in road and construction projects (a common practice during and after the German occupation). The volume of stones is astounding, though still just a fraction of the matzevot plundered from the cemetery. You can see many of them with English translations of the decipherable texts in Yosef Kutner’s book Broken Memories: Remains from the Jewish Cemetery in Kutno. Yosef compiled the book from photographs, so this is the first time he saw the actual stones. Piled as they were, most of their identifying numbers are not visible. Nevertheless, there on the surface, Yosef found the top of his great grandfather’s tombstone. Mr. Skrzynecki explained that more fragments were found during a recent road project. They didn’t make it into the book, but I’m sure Yosef will find a way to share that information once he has it.
Meeting to discuss cemetery protection and maintenance
The meeting to discuss the future of the Kutno Jewish Cemetery followed. It was attended by key figures from the Jewish Community of Poland (Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich), from the town of Kutno (Deputy Mayor Zbigniew Wdowiak, town attorney Agnieszka Wojkowska-Pawlak, museum director Grzegorz Skrzynecki, museum public relations and marketing Katarzyna Erwińska, library head Magdalena Konczarek, and Michael Adamski, head of the Department of Culture, Promotion, and Development), from the Association of Friends of the Kutno Region–TPŻK (Bożena Gajewska), and from international Jewish heritage groups (Yosef from Jewish Kutno and Roberta and me from ADJCP).
This description is based on Roberta Books’ memo: The city deputy president opened the meeting with a presentation of the many actions the Town of Kutno has undertaken in support of remembrance of the Jewish history of Kutno, including the biennial Asch Festival.
Josef Kutner followed with a slide presentation about the Jewish cemetery of Kutno, and his proposal for protection of the property. His proposal includes fencing the entire property with a brick wall that resembles the wall around the Christian cemetery, confirming the location of two mass graves mentioned in the Yizkor book and commemorating the mass graves with an appropriate marker, and limiting access to the site in order to prevent partygoers and others from disrespecting the site. Kutner also advocated creating a memorial with the preserved matsevot and marking the site of Rabbi Trunk’s Ohel.
The town attorney then discussed the ownership of the site. Important records for verifying with legal clarity that the Jewish Community of Kutno owned the site, in particular the Land Registry Book, are missing and unlikely to be located. Despite 20 years of effort, the town has been caught between legal requirements and administrative rulings that have called into question their legal right to maintain the site. Although no interested party questions that the site belonged to the Jewish Community of Kutno, legally this remains a murky area.
Rabbi Schudrich responded that he has dealt with similar problems in Poland on a number of occasions and he is confident that he can sort this out satisfactorily. He told the parties that they should begin planning while the legal issues were being sorted.
Schudrich and the deputy president talked about the change in mentality that they expect will come about when the plans began to come to fruition. When Jewish cemeteries are protected, local residents begin to take pride in them and matsevot have a way of coming out of hiding and returning to the cemetery.
The deputy president voiced his full support for the cemetery renovation, including covering the costs of a new wall. He noted that he, too, had drawn up preliminary plans for fencing the cemetery. They differ from Kutner’s proposal in two key ways. His design would be constructed of metal with brick pillars, not brick like the historical wall or the wall surrounding the Christian cemetery. Also, it would have multiple access points rather than the single access point in the Kutner proposal. The deputy president wants current residents to remain able to walk across the site; he pointed out that its location in the middle of the city would complicate closing it off. He wants the site to be respected as an integral part of the town. He noted that Rabbi Schudrich was consulted throughout the development of the plan, and he supported this idea.
I want to emphasize the good will everyone projected toward each other as well as the resolve to push through the twenty-year roadblock that has stalled the project to secure the cemetery. Since the meeting, Yosef Kutner has continued to share materials about the likely location of the mass grave and to push for his vision for the cemetery restoration.
After lunch, we visited the city library, where director Magdalena Konczarek showed us a short film they produced about Sholem Asch, his work, and the biennial Kutno Sholem Asch Festival. The library sponsors the festival, which has been held every other year since 1993. They also have an extensive collection of materials related to the Jewish history of Kutno and of Asch. They have published several academic volumes based on papers delivered at the conference that occurs in conjunction with the festival, as well as Polish translations of Asch’s work. For the memorial trip in May, Magdalena and library historian/regional specialist Andrzej Olewnik will mount an exhibition featuring their collection.
We continued to the offices of the TPŻK where we met Bożena Gajewska (until recently the organization president) and the vice-president Grażyna Baranowska (former librarian and organizer of the Sholem Asch Festival). Bożena reaffirmed her commitment to continue working on projects associated with Jewish Kutno, and Grażyna affirmed the continued support of the TPŻK.
The next day, we viewed an exhibition in the Kutno Community Center about the Eizyk brothers who bred and grew roses before and after the war. From this successful business, the city adopted the moniker “City of Roses.” The exhibition was part of the annual Rose Festival that attracts thousands of visitors to Kutno.
On September 12, we visited students at the Jan Kasprowicz High School (Liceum II). Roberta and I agree that such outreach to young people was one of the most important (if not the most important) part of our visit. We were welcomed by school director (principal) Artur Ciurlej, teacher Anna Ambrosiak, and a room full of students eager to hear from us. They showed us a short video about their recent activities related to Jewish memory (including dancing lessons!), and then Roberta and I each told our personal family story, explained our ancestors lived nearby, and talked briefly about our desire to restore Jewish memory. The meeting took place in English, but the students clearly understood us; they asked thoughtful questions and shared some of their own experiences with us. We spoke for more than a class period, even after the bells rang. Some students promised to meet us again in May, although they will have graduated by then.
Final note: Clearly, we have strong partners in the Kutno city government and with the TPŻK. They all expressed the desire to work with us and seem to have a sincere interest in preserving and promoting the Jewish heritage of the city. They are eager to participate in the memorial trip in May.
The Stare (Old) Podgórze district of Kraków, nestled between the Vistula River and the hilltop Bednarski Park, has experienced an incredible resurgence over the past several years. What used to be a neglected part of the city, with crumbling townhouses and drunks who congregated in the town square, has become the home of restaurants, cafes, galleries, and museums. A new pedestrian bridge links Podgórze to the heart of Kazimierz; the rhythm of footsteps over the pedestrian walkway causes sculptures suspended from wires to totter like the acrobats that are depicted.
Pedestrian Bridge connecting Podgórze and Kazimierz, Krakow.
Sculptures of acrobats suspended on wires, by Jerzy Kendziora.
A biker pedals by a sculpture of an acrobat suspended on wires, historic Podgórze in the distance.
The pedestrian bridge between Podgórze and Kazimierz, Krakow.
Old Podgórze is also the place the Nazi governor Hans Frank selected for the Krakow Jewish ghetto on March 3, 1941. “Within two weeks, 18,000 Jews were ordered to move to 320 buildings, whose ‘Aryan’ residents had previously been forced to vacate.”  Presumably, the district was selected because of its distance from the center of town, further isolated on the other side of the river. By March 20, Podgórze was closed off by a high brick wall; whether the symbolism was intentional or not, the undulating curves along the top edge evoked Jewish headstones stacked side by side. The ghetto shrank in 1942, when residents were taken to their death in camps like Bełżec, and was completely liquidated on March 13-14, 1943. The ghetto existed just two years, but the fact that it existed at all in this very place clashes uncomfortably with the district’s rebirth.
I have written about Podgórze before, and about the way the district captivated me. In fact, I’ve sometimes remarked that if I were to buy an apartment in Krakow, I would want it to be in Podgórze. But that was before I knew what happened there during World War II, before I started to explore my Jewish heritage, before historical markers brought difficult history back into the public sphere, and before the phantom walls of the ghetto became part of my inner map of the district. When I visited Krakow earlier this summer, I decided to rent an apartment in Podgórze to get a better feel for the place. Could I live there, knowing what I now know?
I found a place right in the heart of what used to be the ghetto, in a newly renovated building right beside a ruin, and across the street from the iconic red brick mikvah building that now houses one of the city’s most prestigious art galleries.
Podgórze, crumbling ruin beside new renovation.
Former mikvah, now Starmach Gallery, Podgórze, Krakow
I took long runs past St. Joseph’s Church on the Podgórze Market Square, over the hills of Bednarski Park, and through the narrow streets.
St Józef’s Church, Podgórze
Fragment of Jewish ghetto wall, Lwowska Street
I visited the remaining fragments of ghetto wall. A short section on Lwowska Street includes a plaque on which is written in Hebrew and Polish: “Here they lived, suffered, and died at the hands of Hitler’s torturers; from here they were taken on their last road to the death camps.” A larger section separates a school yard from the park; I came upon a group of Israeli teenagers whose armed guards asked me what I was doing there. I came to see the wall, I replied. I watched for a bit as their animated tour guide seemed to be reenacting the experiences of ghetto captives.
Tram stop at Ghetto Heroes’ Square
Tram stop at Ghetto Heroes’ Square
I waited for trams at Ghetto Heroes Square, sitting on the chairs that are part of the memorial to those who waited at this very spot to be transported on that final road to their deaths.
Map of Podgórze, including Jewish ghetto boundaries.
Memorial in Ghetto Heroes’ Square
Could I be witness to this on a daily basis? Maybe if I lived in Podgórze, but outside the borders of the ghetto? But that seems no better—to put myself in the position of those who watched from outside the walls.
So my love of this space—a quiet corner just a short walk from the heart of the city—battles with the discomfort of flashes of a painful history.
Could I live there? Could you?
 Potel, Jean-Yves. 2010 Koniec Niewinności: Polska Wobec Swojej Żydowskiej Przeszłości. Translated by Julia Chimiak. Krakow: Znak. P. 128.